Orin F. Stafford

Orin F. Stafford (1873-1941) ─ U. Of O. Professor, A Co-Discoverer of “Heavy Water”

Orin F. Stafford was a brilliant scientist and popular UO faculty member like his father-in-law Dean John Straub. He was born in Ohio to parents Eli and Sarah Stafford. The family moved to Kansas in 1885.

After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1900 Stafford came to the University of Oregon as an instructor. In 1902 he earned his Master of Arts and was promoted to assistant professor. He married Elizabeth Straub in 1903 and by 1905 Stafford was a full professor and head of the chemistry department. In 1936 Stafford was named dean of the lower division and service departments.

Scientific discovery marked Stafford’s 41 years at the university. A keen observer, soon after coming to Oregon he took up interest in the immense piles of sawdust and other wood products going to waste at the mills. Stafford experimented with sugar production from wood, which led to his invention of the Stafford Process. This method converts the cellulose of wood waste into ethyl alcohol fuel and high-grade charcoal.

In the January 1918 issue of The Timberman Stafford wrote: “Each year wood thrown into Washington and Oregon scrap heaps equals a solid block of 500 million cubic feet… That waste would make a sidewalk two inches thick and 25 feet wide around the earth at the equator.”

Among other benefits, Stafford noted that, as fuel, the realized gas would be easier to transport than the wood itself.

Throughout his career Stafford seemed at the ready to solve problems through science. When he learned that the supply of “heavy water” at the U.S. Bureau of Standards was running short, vital research was conducted. Stafford brought in 5000 gallons of pure McKenzie River water and electrolyzed it down to 50 gallons. That heavy water was sent east to Washington D.C. for government chemists to use in their labs.

Today Stafford is recognized as the co-discoverer of heavy water, and established his scientific authority in wood carbonization. He was a fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science; a member of the American Chemical Society; and member of Sigma XI and Phi Betta Kappa.

In addition to being widely-known within the university and across the country for hisoriginal research, Stafford was a Boy Scout leader. He served as president of the Willamette Council of Boy Scouts; was a member of Eugene city school board; and was president of the Eugene Rotary Club.

In later years, Stafford returned from a trip to Finland and designed the cascading tiers of the Straub-Stafford lot in Eugene Pioneer Cemetery. The two Eugene families were like one. Sons from one family fell in love and married daughters from the other.

Orin personally oversaw construction of the center marker that reads Stafford on the east face, and Straub on the west face. The cremains of individual family members are interred into a tier with a bronze marker placed over them.

The most recent burial was Phyllis B. Stafford (1911-2009) who was the mother of Professor Jonathon Stafford, an active member of the Eugene Pioneer Cemetery Association.

At the age of 68, Prof. Orin Stafford died in his sleep at his residence. He’d retired two weeks prior due to health reasons. The newspaper obituary recognized Stafford as “a citizen who had served his community in many capacities outside his campus duties.” Yet significantly, “Dean Stafford came to the university when it was small. He had witnessed its growth to one of the leading institutions of higher learning on the coast.”